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Jewish ‘subculture’ enhances teenage girls’ lives

NEW YORK — In her new book, G-d, Grades, and Graduation: Religion’s Surprising Impact on Academic Success, sociologist Ilana Horwitz examines the ways a religious upbringing shape the academic lives of teens.

Ilana Horwitz (Avery White)

Horowitz found that working-class teenage boys raised in strongly religious homes were twice as likely to earn bachelor’s degrees than boys who were not.

She also found that girls raised in Jewish homes were 23% more likely to graduate college than girls with a non-Jewish upbringing, even controlling for their parents’ socioeconomic status. Jewish women also tend to graduate from much more selective colleges.

Horwitz and her co-authors discuss the finding in “From Bat Mitzvah to the Bar: Religious Habitus, Self-Concept and Women’s Educational Outcomes,” a paper published in the American Sociological Review.

Horwitz, an assistant professor of Jewish studies and sociology at Tulane University, based her research on the National Study of Youth and Religion to the National Student Clearinghouse, which followed 3,238 adolescents for 13 years.

JTA: What was your working definition of Jewishness?

Ilana Horwitz: We’re talking about it as an ethno-religious subculture. That is different from thinking about religion specifically as a set of practices or as a set of beliefs.

In the paper we talk about “shared ideas, values, experiences, behaviors and symbols that are transmitted intergenerationally between members of different religious and ethno-religious groups.”

Religious subcultures are not just shaped by theology, but also by historical events, demographic patterns and political concerns.

What shapes the self-concept of Jewish girls that you talk about?

Children who grow up in different social class groups develop different dispositions and different ways of thinking about themselves, and where education fits into that. Sociologists term this the “habitus.” Habitus basically refers to the air we breathe.

Habitus is not just informed by class. It is also informed by religious subculture, even if the families are not intensely religious.

Kids are going to Bar Mitzvahs, to Hebrew school. Their family members are also Jewish, and the kids are in environments learning about different historical events.

These different ways of thinking aren’t just reflective of their class, but also about what Judaism values, what people in the Jewish community do professionally.

For girls, there’s this extra dimension: Judaism is considered to be, and this may surprise people, the most gender egalitarian among religious traditions.

Jewish parents are raising their girls to believe that they can also have elite professions just as much as the boys.

Aren’t these just upper middle-class values?

The large scale nationally representative survey that we used allows us to control for different measures of socioeconomic status. After doing that, we still saw girls raised by Jewish parents doing statistically better in terms of their odds of graduating college and going into more selective colleges and that social class or socioeconomic status does not fully explain the story.

Then we looked at the interview data. The participants were followed over a 10-year period, starting in 2003 when they were 13-17 years old. This allows us to catch them as adolescents when they’re developing their self-concept.

We matched girls raised by Jewish parents with girls raised by non-Jewish parents of comparable socioeconomic groups, and only looked at girls who identify as white because almost all the Jewish girls identify as white. We found that their self-concepts were very different; it’s not just about social class. Habitus is also informed by their religious subcultures.

For example, one of the girls in the study was not raised by Jewish parents. She grows up in a conservative Protestant home. Her mom was a school superintendent, her dad was a representative to the Virginia House of Delegates. So on paper, she’s a very socioeconomically advantaged kid, and her parents have these highly prestigious careers.

Yet she grew up with very traditional notions of gender, and her self-concept very much revolved around doing something altruistic. She ended up becoming a missionary. She did not want to go to an elite college. Having a prestigious career was not central to how she saw herself as a kid despite being an upper-class kid.

Can you give me a similar anecdote about Jewish girls?

In the narratives of the girls raised by Jewish parents, by the time they were teenagers, the idea of being a prominent career woman, of being in the spotlight, of fulfilling their life purpose through a prominent career, was central to their lives. Motherhood was secondary.

They all wanted to become mothers. But there was almost no woman raised by Jewish parents for whom that was the central goal of life.

“I need to go to graduate school. To do that I need to go to a selective college, and so I’m going to start prepping really early on.”

Girls with Jewish parents had elaborate views of how their educational journeys would unfold. Girls from non-Jewish homes also said they plan to go to college, but it was not something that they had given comprehensive thought to.

For the Jewish girls in the study, what stuck with them about Judaism from Hebrew school is that Judaism as a religion really values questioning and debate. This openness to new experiences is really important. They don’t just value education; they actually have learned to be willing to go outside of their comfort zone. This wasn’t prevalent among girls with non-Jewish parents.

Did your study look into levels of Jewish engagement?

The Jewish sample was not huge. Most of whom we were looking at were Reform and Conservative Jews or at least those who back in 2003 still used those categories.

Within the sample, there wasn’t a ton of variation. It seemed that most of the kids were going to Hebrew school. When we looked at one Jewish parent versus two Jewish parents, kids growing up with two Jewish parents seemed to develop more of these messages about the professions valued in the Jewish subculture.

I remember one woman who had a Protestant mom and a Jewish dad. Early on in her life, she said, “my dad keeps talking to me about college and how I’m going to have this important career, but my mother doesn’t talk to me about that kind of stuff.”

She decided she was much more interested in her mom’s church, and she got very embedded into the Protestant community. She ended up having much more humbler visions of how her life would unfold.

Habitus is the air we breathe. Kids who have Jewish parents have extended Jewish family and that air is just a little bit thicker.

To what degree does G-d, faith, spirituality or a higher power come into your study? 

It comes in very prominently for the [non-Jewish] kids in the book, but not for the Jewish girls. For the Jewish girls, belief plays a very, very tiny role, if any.

What does come up is the social nature of the Jewish subculture. Even if you go to synagogue twice a year, you probably still go to some family Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. You probably still interact with family members over a Passover seder.

During those social interactions, you learn pieces of Jewish history or information about the kinds of professions that your parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles had. They formulate your idea of what is in the Jewish subculture, even if it has nothing to do with G-d.

You seem hesitant to boil Jewish success down to “Jews value education.”

The idea of “valuing education” doesn’t recognize the structural, social and psychological factors that make it possible for people to be successful. Jews also have the resources to invest in education. They can afford college and graduate school for their children.

Jewish boys did have to learn Jewish text. The whole “people of the book” thing was the history of the Jewish people.That evolved in a way that made Jewish education work for the Jewish people, but there wasn’t anything inherent about the Jewish people that made that possible. It was a set of social, economic and historical factors that all have come together to land us where we are today, with Jews being among the most highly educated religious groups in America.

What we don’t want is this idea that, “Oh, if blacks and Latinos just valued education more, they’d be better off.” I want us to move away from that simplistic and false idea to think about how different social, economic and psychological processes come together to make the valuing of education translate into educational advantage, and why other people who value education don’t get to reap the rewards.

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